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NHGRI Researchers Become Ambassadors for National DNA Day

By Geoff Spencer

On the Front Page...

April 2003 will be remembered in the annals of history as the month when the National Human Genome Research Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy and their international partners announced the successful completion of the Human Genome Project, the effort to sequence the 3 billion DNA letters in the human genetic instruction book.

Continued...

NHGRI held many events during the month of April to celebrate that accomplishment, but one event in particular captured the forward-looking spirit of the genome era by reaching out to the next generation of biomedical researchers.

On Apr. 25, dozens of researchers and scientific staff from NHGRI headed back to schools in their hometowns — from Newtonville, Mass. to Newport Beach, Calif. — to speak to students about the genome era and their research at NIH. These "DNA ambassadors" timed their educational outreach efforts to coincide with National DNA Day, a day designated by Congress to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of James Watson and Francis Crick's landmark paper describing the double helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

NHGRI's Dr. Belen Hurle

Mary LaMarca, a biologist who works for the Medical Genetics Branch in NHGRI's Division of Intramural Research, took time from her research on Gaucher disease to make four presentations to about 150 students at Natick High School in Natick, Mass.

"I've always enjoyed training the summer students in our lab," said LaMarca. "An important part of our jobs as government scientists is to educate the next generation of students. Getting kids excited about science is fun, and has lots of benefits."

LaMarca said teachers were very grateful for DVDs containing the human genome sequence, videos, genomic primers and other educational materials about genomics that NHGRI provided for the event. "They will be able to use a lot of it in future lesson plans and reach a lot more students than I could talk to in a single day," she said.

NHGRI director Dr. Francis Collins said educational efforts like National DNA Day will play a key role in realizing the full potential of the Human Genome Project. "We are depending on the next generation of scientists to translate the human genome sequence and use it to prevent, treat and eventually cure the common diseases that afflict families around the globe. National DNA Day was a wonderful opportunity for NHGRI researchers to make personal contact with students and get them excited about the 'era of the genome,'" he said.


A group shot of NHGRI's "DNA ambassadors"

While many NHGRI researchers went back to their alma maters, Dr. Belen Hurle, a research fellow in the Genome Technology Branch, reached out to under-represented minority students who rarely have opportunities to interact with world-class biomedical researchers. Hurle spoke to students at Vashon High School in St. Louis, Mo.

"While I was a post-doc at Washington University at St. Louis, I mentored for the 'young scientist program,' an excellent hands-on summer internship for high school students," she explained. "The students come mostly from wealthy county schools. I wanted to take the opportunity to excite some inner-city students about modern genetics and encourage them to explore programs such as the one at Washington University."

What made National DNA Day particularly special for students was the chance to hear first-hand accounts about the day-to-day activities in the life of a scientist, according to Hurle. "I thought that I could serve as a role model, especially for the girls, since I am a young Latina woman," she said.

Hurle also told the students that even if they did not become genomics researchers, there were many different careers they might consider in which knowledge of genomics and genetics would be helpful or essential. Some examples she cited were medicine, bioinformatics, law, art/medical illustration, engineering, biotechnology and archaeology.

At a follow-up meeting to discuss their experiences, the DNA ambassadors agreed that National DNA Day should become an annual occurrence.

Students from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute listen to a DNA ambassador give a presentation.

"I think that most people in the United States get a very distorted view from the popular media of what's real and what's possible in scientific and medical research," said LaMarca, explaining why it is important for researchers to spend a percentage of their time doing outreach and education. "Having regular bench researchers go out and talk about our jobs, the setbacks, the discoveries and the excitement of serendipitous links and unexpected connections that come up in research cuts through some of the fog and gives folks a better picture of what's possible and why we enjoy what we're doing."

LaMarca continued, "We won't reach every student, but if each ambassador lights a spark in just one or two kids and shows them that research can be intellectually satisfying and often just plain fun, we'll have helped both that student and the field."

For more information on the Human Genome Project and the educational resources available through NHGRI, visit www.genome.gov.


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